#70 I Sold the Arabs the Moon- When we fly we all become philosophers.
First of all let me openly acknowledge I am hijacking my blog for a few days to talk about the songs on my upcoming solo album The Palace Guards. Available everywhere Feb 1st.
And I know I have a lot of competition this week. It looks like a number of my peers are releasing records. So let’s quickly review them.
First off Iron and Wine has a new album out. Kiss Each Other Clean. I am told it is a 45 minute field recording of Sam Beam humming The Theme to a Man And a Woman while he vacuums.*
Then there is the new Deerhoof album which is titled Deerhof vs Evil. This is also a strange album. It consists entirely of Brittany Spears covers with vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki singing in a fake texas accent ala Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo. **
Finally there is REMs new record “Mine Smell Like Honey” which is a concept record about Michael Stipe’s testicles. ***
So as you can see you are much better off spending your 8, 10 or 12 dollars this week on my new solo Album The Palace Guards.
Click Here to buy an autographed CD from Newbury Comics.
There is this magnificent book by gabriel Garcia Marquez titled the Autumn of the Patriarch. A sprawling first hand account of a south american’s dictators improbable 100+ year rule.
Throughout the story the dictator repeatedly sells out to various world powers eventually selling the sea to the Yanquis.
I loved this phrase. I’ve turned on my tongue many times while strumming guitar trying to fit it into a song.
I never found a home for this phrase until in 2009 I found myself inexplicably flying in a US Army combat helicopter 2500 meters over Iraq. We were on our way from the Coalition base at Basra International Airport to a US armed forces base variously referred to as Camp Adder by the US army or Ali airbase by US Air Force. Most People call it Talill.
We were engaged in what had become the familiar GI shit talking on headsets as we flew. Questions from the crew about details of life touring in a rock band. Us asking questions about their lives, their experiences and some good gossip about celebrities politicians and others they had ferried around Iraq.
At some point one of the pilots or crew members mentioned that we would be flying over the Ziggurat of Ur. Although I had spent a good deal of time prepping for this trip by reading histories of Iraq and accounts of both Iraq wars, I didn’t know what this was.
“It marks the city of Ur which is literally the birthplace of civilization”
“Ur was probably the first or one of the first urban human settlements, the first city”. another unknown voice on the internal comms chimed in.
The pilots obliged us by banking the aircraft in a large arc as we went into Talill so we could get a look at this historic site.
The ziggurat comes clearly in focus at 0:12 seconds.
I remember looking down at this and getting this weird sensation. This feeling that you sometimes get when you are flying and you see the curvature of the Earth.
You get this sense of how small you are. How short your life is in the span of human history. How insignificant your small deeds and actions. At the same time you get a glimpse of the huge yet unseen forces that shape everything we do.
The green of the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigres. The great arc of the fertile crescent that produced the first large groups of non-nomadic peoples. How the land itself shaped who we are and what we do. Farming and craftsmen then produced a (relatively) gentle life that produced cities scholars and philosophers. The great expanse of desert on one side. A harsh wilderness to some but a home of sorts to nomadic tribes like the arabs. They became skilled warriors and traders taking goods from once place to another.
The Kurds on the other hand in their distant blue mountains, their strongholds they are independent and wary. Their great herds of livestock still the cultural link between the eurasian steppes and the Persian gulf. The people of this land also straddle the linguistic divide between the semitic languages of the south, the Indo European mother tongue to the north and the mongol horseman borne languages of the East.
At an altitude like this you can see how the land shaped the people. At an altitude we all become philosophers.
And other things. I had an officer comment to me that we won’t leave Iraq for a long time because:
“we’ve scrambled their economy and now it’s reassembled around our supply lines. The gulf arabs come in from the south and the Turks from the north. They use our supply lines. It started with their mobile phone companies now it’s their construction companies, and so on…when you fly back to kuwait you can see the flow of containers and equipment coming in. It dwarfs what we are taking out”.
There it is again. When you fly you become an economist, a geopolitical scientist and a philosopher.
So here I was a son of a career US Air Force NCO. I couldn’t help noticing the vast infrastructure of the Air that we were building. Rows of antennae non-directional helixes, which told me they were for speaking to “birds’ or satellites. As well as the more familiar satellite dishes. Air Traffic towers, infrastructure for unmanned ariel vehicles, airstrips for our large aircraft, and the strangely a high tech reprise of Edwardian blimps bristling with sensors and cameras. All this showing no sign of a drawdown. Sure we’re removing most of our ground forces, but instead we leave behind our dour civillian contractors with their mustaches and sunglasses. Our clever Australian, South African and English engineers to build and man our lethal redoubts. Our invisible fortresses in the Air. No one will notice.
Although unsure about the wisdom of this naked thrust of our imperial might my chest couldn’t help swelling with pride for my country. I suddenly felt like chanting USA USA USA!!
The English and their grey warships. They controlled this part of the world by controlling the sea. The Turks with their masterful bureaucrats backed by cruel and efficient armies. The Mongols with their highly disciplined calvary of squat horses. The Arabs with their swords, caravans and the crescent moon of Islam. And two dozen other forgotten empires. They all came to rule this part of the world.
And so on my way out of Baghdad on the roof of what serves as the passenger terminal for officers and US government employees in and out of Iraq I began composing this.
“I sold the Yanquis the Sky, I sold the English the Sea. I sold the Mongols the Steppes. No too obscure. People will think ‘steps’ instead of ‘Steppes’, I sold the Ottomans… no people will think furniture, I sold the Mamluks the… ? Who? I sold the Romans the chariot? sounds sort of pathetic. I sold the Arabs the Moon.”
I also thought of my father as I was writing this. I couldn’t help because he actually died this day (January 26th). I wondered if all those years of flying around in planes had made him a philosopher. He never really talked about much in a geopolitical context. Although I do remember a vague memory of him pointing out the faint arrow straight outline of the roman road out of Londinium towards Dover. And of course scrambling around on Moorish and Roman ruins when we lived in spain. He clearly had some sense of the bigger historical picture. I also document this in the Cracker song Riverside. My father metaphorically stands on the bank of the river Styx which in greek mythology separates the land of the living from the land of the dead.
I can’t see you standing by that riverside.
I can’t see you standing by that riverside.
See you on roman roads, aqueducts and matadors
See you on Moorish walls, Alhambra, Seville
*, **, *** I’m only joking. It’s just my sense of humor y’all. And my father would approve of this kind of joking. And *** was actually borrowed from ashley knotts.